WASHINGTON -- This one will sting for a while, and the Penguins know it.
Losing always does, at least a little.
And doing it this way -- when a 2-0 lead in a three-round shootout melts away -- hurts a lot.
But the Penguins' 4-3 loss to Washington at Verizon Center just might turn out to be one of the pivotal moments in their season. In a positive way.
Not, obviously, because Mike Knuble of the Capitals scored in the fourth round of the shootout to end the game, but because of all the good things the Penguins did before it.
Despite playing without their cornerstone defenseman, Sergei Gonchar (illness), and center Evgeni Malkin (foot), they competed on even -- or better -- terms with the NHL's top point-producing team for 65 minutes.
They overcame adversity and fought back from behind, worked with the kind of intensity and focus that has been missing from their game so often in recent weeks.
Oh, they made some mistakes -- there were on-ice decisions that were second-guessed, shootout saves goalie Marc-Andre Fleury wished he had made -- but, for the first time in a while, the Penguins turned in an whole-game effort on which they might be able to build a strong stretch drive.
At the very least, the point they earned when Jordan Staal tied the score with 3:06 left in regulation boosted them back into first place in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of New Jersey. The Devils, though, have played two fewer games.
But the impact of this kind of performance, accomplished without two guys who contribute a lot of quality minutes, could be felt long after the current standings have been forgotten.
"For a lot of reasons, that's the type of game we expect from our team, and the way we can play," coach Dan Bylsma said.
"The way we played, that's the way we need to play to play our game. Getting to our game, we did that for long stretches. And we responded when things didn't go well, stuck with our game."
And they came about as close to earning two points as a team can without actually doing it.
Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby beat Capitals goalie Jose Theodore in the first two rounds of the shootout, while Fleury rejected the first Washington shooter he faced, Nicklas Backstrom.
Had Fleury stopped Alex Ovechkin in Round 2 -- or even Alexander Semin in Round 3 -- or Bill Guerin scored for the Penguins in the third round, the game would have been over.
Didn't happen. Theodore stopped Guerin and Chris Kunitz, while Ovechkin, Semin and Knuble beat Fleury on consecutive tries.
"I knew they have skilled players," Fleury said. "But I've faced them before and stopped them before."
Knuble, who got the game-ending goal, picked up the first of the evening as well, knocking in a Backstrom rebound 69 seconds into the second period.
That gave Washington a lead in a game the Penguins had controlled reasonably well to that point. They outshot the Capitals, 17-9, over the first 20 minutes, and had a corresponding edge in play.
"They came out really strong in the first," Theodore said.
The Penguins bounced back quickly after Knuble scored, as well.
Max Talbot tied the score, 1-1, at 2:21 of the second, deflecting in a Brooks Orpik shot for his second of the season and first in his past 31 games.
Guerin put the Penguins up, 2-1, when he converted a Crosby feed on a power play at 14:39, and that had the Penguins in front at the intermission.
Semin picked up a short-handed goal at 5:36 of the third, however, and Eric Fehr deflected in a Mike Green shot at 7:32 to restore Washington's lead.
The Penguins, though, didn't wilt, and Staal's 21st goal of the season assured them of at least one point.
"It was a good battle," Talbot said. "They're a good team, and we're a good team. This shows, I think, that we hate each other."
Guerin made it clear that he liked what he saw from his team -- "We did a lot of good things, more than we've been doing," he said -- but cautioned against putting undue emphasis on a single performance.
Better, he said, to see if proves to be the start of a trend, rather than an aberration.
"It's one game," he said. "We've got to keep moving forward. If we play like this in the last eight games, then I'll say we've come out of it. But until then, we're still working on it."
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 25, 2010 4:00 AM